“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths” (Prov. 3:5-6, ESV).
I could tell something was wrong. Even in the midst of my hectic schedule and the busyness of everyday life, I had noticed changes in my middle child, a shift in her mood and appearance over the past few months. She had withdrawn a bit—removed herself from our simple weekly family life, sat out our evening dinner discussions and always had too much to do on family movie nights. She was still there, physically present, but she was emotionally checked out.
Bethany had begun to fade into a shell of her normally dramatic and exuberant teenage self. She was still an athletic, slim, blonde “Barbie doll” of a girl, but her beautiful sky-blue eyes had seemed to lose their color. They were darker now, especially with the extra mascara and eyeliner she had begun to wear. Her skin looked more frail and white than I’d ever remembered. She kept her eyes down, usually with a hoodie over her head and iPod earbuds jammed in her ears. She was trying to keep us all out. It was frustrating, irritating and disrespectful, and I had made a mental note to confront her about the many rude behaviors I had observed in her recently. My patience for her teenage angst had worn thin. She needed to be corrected. It was time our family quit being punished by her unpredictable moods and her annoyance with everyone and everything around her.
I loved her dearly, but I had to admit it: Bethany could be a real snot sometimes. Her older sister and younger brother were always complaining about her attitudes and selfishness, and on more than one occasion, my wife, Paige, had thrown up her hands in frustration and despair, wondering if Bethany would ever grow up. It didn’t take a Ph.D. to figure out that we were giving her way too much latitude. Her schoolwork was starting to suffer, and seemingly overnight she had changed her clothes from a well-groomed “preppy” style to a sloppy, skinny-jeans “skater” look. What was going on with her?
Whatever it was, I assumed it was related to her growing hormonal imbalances, combined with girl-boy teen drama and high school social stress. I also assumed her attitude was a jab at her mother and me, an attempt to show us that she was older and independent now, able to handle herself without our help. So I, the supposedly wise father, was already judging her actions as rebellious and in need of correction before I had talked with her at all. I was seriously right—and I was seriously wrong.
In retrospect, the signs were there, if I had taken the time to notice. If I had been paying attention to Bethany, really paying attention, I would have seen the faint scars from a few old, purple cuts—long, swollen, twisted welts—as well as the chronic scars on the insides of her forearms. But I didn’t. I might have noticed that the girl who had once been the most voracious eater in the family was suffering from an ongoing loss of appetite. I might have noticed that her choice of music, art and reading had shifted from bright and uplifting to dark and depressing. She had, in fact, been morphing from an animated and optimistic young woman, full of life, hope and excitement, into a shadow of her healthier self.
In my naiveté, I was still remembering her as she was before instead of seeing her as she had become. I had missed the transformation in front of my very eyes. Actually, I’d seen the symptoms, but I hadn’t taken them seriously. Instead of investigating the sudden changes in my daughter, I’d dismissed them, chalking it all up to normal teen issues. Day after hectic day had come and gone, and I was blindly doing my best to keep everything and everyone in their proper places. Hypnotized by the repetitive schedules and demands on my time, I was slowly losing my awareness of the very real and dangerous problem growing in my own home. I had fallen asleep at the wheel.
Not only had Bethany changed in appearance and attitude, but the time she spent alone in her room and away from her family or friends had grown from a few hours each week to a few hours each day. When she was around, her blank and absent stare was devoid of any emotion—beyond her growing irritation with the rest of us. Yet I continued to misread her activities, changes in appearance and nasty attitude. I shudder to think what might have happened that dark week in September 2009 if I hadn’t taken a moment to pray with my wife late one night in our bedroom.
As I took the time to quiet myself, and as I emptied my mind of the day’s worries, I opened my heart in prayer and immediately felt the presence of God intrude into my awareness. It was like a firm, tender, but powerful impression, a deep whisper in my mind: Ask Bethany what she is hiding from you. I thought, Tonight, Lord? Right now? My heart felt an intense surge of emotion as I sensed the urgency. Immediately!
Since committing my life radically to Christ eight years earlier, one thing I had learned is that when God clearly speaks to me, it’s wise to respond right away. My wife and I agreed it was important enough to interrupt our sleep that night, and we decided to find out what was really going on with our daughter.
As we walked the short distance from our room to hers, I felt frustration and anger build within me. Obviously Bethany was lying to us about something, and I was determined to find out what. Like many parents, we had battled with the pattern of deceit and half-truths so common in adolescents. I was convinced that Bethany had lied to us once again and was secretly pursuing some defiant violation of our house rules regarding boys or Facebook or texting. She was always pushing the boundaries with us, and this time she must have gone too far. After all, the middle child is often the most difficult—everyone told us so. Bethany had fought her mother and me every step of the way, ever since she was a little toddler. “I DO IT!” she had screamed at us when she first learned to talk and walk. And in the next decade, it seemed she had continued to resist every effort we made as her parents to win her heart and her trust.